Looking back on the exchanges that took place around the U.S. -- Egypt Strategic Dialogue on August 2, Secretary Kerry ultimately conceded too much to his Egyptian interlocutors. By failing to push back against implacable refusal from the Egyptian side to engage in honest discussion about countering terrorism while protecting human rights, he handed the Sisi regime the seal of approval from the United States that it was seeking.
Secretary Kerry will claim that he tried. His opening statement made repeated reference to the need for a comprehensive approach to countering the threat of terrorism that would extend far beyond security and law enforcement. He described preventing young people from turning to terror in the first place as an "even larger imperative" than security measures and emphasized the importance of "building trust between the authorities and the public, and enabling those who are critical of official policies to find a means of voicing their dissent peacefully, through participation in a political process." He pressed his hosts to embrace good governance and political reform and to ensure that the fundamental rights of its citizens are protected.
This is sound advice, but there is no indication that the Sisi government is prepared to make any steps in this direction. The U.S. government should have anticipated Egyptian recalcitrance. After all, the dialogue took place at a time when serious human rights abuses are taking place at a level unprecedented in Egypt's modern history.
Hence it was disappointing and harmful to U.S. interests when Secretary Kerry answered a question about the need for the Egyptian government to "show greater respect for human rights" with an equivocal response, saying that "it's a very difficult choice for Egypt because there is evidence of engagement in violence by certain people and certain leaders." He went on to state, in the absence of any evidence to support his assertion, that "Egypt is trying to find that balance."
To make matters worse, he went on to say that "the proof of that is going to be over the course of the next months into the election, obviously," thereby seeming to overlook the months of widespread human rights violations that have already taken place under Sisi's rule, including the killing of thousands of protesters, the detention of tens of thousands of political prisoners without regard for their legal rights, increasing reports of torture, summary disappearances, and even the death squad style killings of political opponents.
These are the practices that Secretary Kerry will be seen to have condoned by failing to state clearly that the Egyptian government is responsible for widespread violations of human rights that are detrimental to stability and security in Egypt and harmful to the bilateral relationship between the United States and Egypt.
The fact that it may be difficult to distinguish genuinely violent criminals from other detainees not implicated in acts of violence is not an excuse for disregarding the rule of law, for condoning torture, or for overlooking unfair trials. If the Egyptian authorities took the trouble to compile credible evidence of involvement in criminal activity against specific individuals instead of indiscriminately detaining thousands, they might find they had more success, and they would avoid the harm to public trust and the increased polarization that are the inevitable results of unjustly persecuting large numbers of citizens on the basis of their imputed political views.
Secretary Kerry was also wrong to suggest that holding elections will demonstrate the Egyptian government's intentions to show greater respect for human rights. Elections were held regularly under President Mubarak and were neither free nor fair. Now much of the political opposition is already in jail and opposition political parties are in disarray. Sisi will have no problem arranging for his supporters to win parliamentary elections in such conditions, but they will contribute nothing to ending the alarming cycle of violence nor contribute to much needed national reconciliation.
The Egyptian government's response to criticisms of its human rights record has been one of brazen denial. Immediately prior to Secretary Kerry's unfortunate response to the human rights question at the press conference, his Egyptian Counterpart, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, had asserted in the face of evidence to the contrary that Secretary Kerry would certainly have been aware of, that "none of the [18 journalists identified by the Committee to Protect Journalists] are in prison or facing a judicial process related to their professional journalism, but are accused of implication with terrorist activity...They are all in the state of due process by a judicial competent authority and are afforded all forms of defense." Shoukry went on to boast about "the ability and competence" of Egypt's legal and judicial system. U.S. officials, including Secretary Kerry have, with good reason, questioned the actions of the Egyptian judiciary on several occasions over the last two years, but, by failing to push back against Minister Shoukry's baseless assertions, he gave them credence.
If Secretary Kerry and the U.S. government are serious about promoting and protecting human rights as an essential part of effective security and counterterrorism policy, as Secretary Kerry eloquently set forth in his introductory remarks about "the imperative nexus between human rights and security," then surely they must be ready to speak clearly and openly about Egyptian polices that run directly counter to this approach. By failing to publicly push back against Minister Shoukry's blithe dismissals of human rights concerns, the United States is not building trust with its ally; it is abetting the Egyptian government in its disastrous policies that are fueling political violence and divisions and undermining prospects for long-term stability in Egypt.